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Play It Again

Is MTV getting too gross? With the music channel's reality shows crossing new limits of dumbness, Evan Serpick longs for some thought-provoking videos

Johnny Knoxville, Jackass the Movie | WHO ARE THE REAL JACKASSES? Instead of videos, MTV has been serving up more non-musical fare like ''Jackass the Movie'' specials
WHO ARE THE REAL JACKASSES? Instead of videos, MTV has been serving up more non-musical fare like ''Jackass the Movie'' specials

Is MTV getting too gross?

MTV has never exactly been a model of decency. Years of Beavis and Butt-head and Madonna (oh my!) have taught us to expect little more than innovative ways to shed clothing and act stupid. The spring break specials deserve special recognition for getting people to act dumb and get naked AT THE SAME TIME. To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, no one ever went broke underestimating the class of MTV.

This year, the network carries on its titillating traditions with a ''Now! More Dumb Pretty Kids Than Ever!'' edition of ''The Real World'' and a Christina Aguilera video that makes Madonna's clips look like ''Barney'' reruns. MTV no longer airs ''Jackass,'' its ode to male adolescence, but the network saw fit to reprise the ''Jackass'' crew's dumb -- and occasionally naked -- antics for several recurring specials around the release of ''Jackass the Movie.''

Now, far be it from me to criticize partial nudity and cartoonish violence. Hell, if there were a Partial Nudity and Cartoonish Violence network (PNCV?), I'd be all over it. MTV has every right to show squished testicles and blurred ta-tas -- and I reject any lawmaker's attempt to the censor the network.

But there IS no PNCV; there's only MTV, Music Television. It's pretty pathetic that Music Television is so devoid of, uh, music, that they created another network (that not everyone gets, thank you very much) to handle it. Even on the few MTV shows dedicated to videos, like ''TRL'' and ''DFX,'' they don't show whole videos but brief clips. It's a wonder people know what videos to vote for.

Perhaps the most shameful of MTV's recent actions was the decision to censor Public Enemy's video for ''Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need,'' because it included the line ''Free Mumia.'' It's one thing to fill airtime with smut and violence, it's another to do so at the expense of political expression. The network seems to say that it's okay for young people to take off their clothes or staple things to themselves, but not okay to have strong political beliefs -- especially if those beliefs differ from the conventional wisdom of MTV's thought police. (For those who don't remember, Mumia Abu-Jamal is a Pennsylvania journalist who has been on death row since 1982 for the killing of a policeman; groups of supporters, including many celebrities, believe that he deserves a new trial.)

Further, it borders on racism to ban the Public Enemy video after airing videos by groups like Rage Against the Machine and Beastie Boys in which they overtly express political beliefs. Apparently, MTV must approve the video-makers' political expressions or else it won't air them, and that's the worst kind of censorship.

Instead of censoring artists' content, maybe MTV could actually create thoughtful content of its own. I know it's important to show the Video Music Awards 147 times -- albeit in a version carefully edited to remove any unfiltered reality or evidence of conflict like the Eminem-Moby stand-down -- but maybe there's room for some content that actually challenges viewers to think for themselves or discuss issues of the day. ''Rock the Vote'' commercials aren't enough.

Maybe someday MTV will start playing videos again, and the network will develop content that nurtures the curiosity and creativity of its viewers, instead of just their hormones. I know I'd love the music network if it went back to playing music. Of course, I might still like to see some partial nudity and cartoonish violence. And if they ever move that stuff to another channel, I'll be the first one on the phone to my cable company, demanding, ''I want my PNCV!''

What do you think of MTV's programming?

Originally posted Nov 05, 2002
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